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Forbidden Planet: Bullets for breakfast, teargas for tea.
Jim Johnson

Israel isn’t the obvious choice for a carefree family holiday in the sun. With Israeli-Palestinian relations at an all time low, those seeking to ‘get away from it all’ may be well advised to try elsewhere. There is rising conflict in the Palestinian Territories. Israel itself has recently been hit by suicide bombers and other acts of terrorism. Such violence seems unlikely to ease in the near future under Israel’s new hard-line Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon. So is it worth considering a visit to the Promised Land? How great are the risks faced by tourists and is there anything really worth seeing anyway?

You might expect Israel to be dominated entirely by religion. It is after all at the centre of Jewish, Christian and Muslim beliefs. While this side to Israel is always evident, it is by no means all that you will encounter. Its business capital Tel-Aviv, could be any vibrant Mediterranean city. It’s a million miles away from the ancient stone buildings and holy sites of Jerusalem. Even Jerusalem is much more than just a living museum, the New City has enough bars and nightlife, shops and tower blocks to rival any modern city.

Israel is a lively cosmopolitan society of diverse cultures - more of a volatile mixture than a melting pot. The ability to experience so many cultures in such a small place makes Israel a moving, sometimes bizarre but intriguing place to visit. Even the Jewish people who make up 80% of the population are anything but homogeneous. You will encounter Hasidic Jews in their characteristic black clothes and hats, who are devoted entirely to their religion. Then there are those who embody the consumerist, progressive Israel, a country whose tiny companies are able to compete with the best from Europe and America – these Israelis often only partake in the occasional religious ceremony.

Whether you are a believer or not, the holy sites in Israel will amaze. Jerusalem in particular is full of them: the Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Via Dolorosa to name a few. Most are very impressive; ancient monuments set in breathtaking surroundings. You will witness many devoted pilgrims and worshippers for whom these places mean so much, which makes it hard to remain unmoved, regardless of your religious point of view.

Tel-Aviv has lovely clean beaches, a big shopping centre, vodka cafes and an oriental Yemenite Quarter. The Red Sea resort of Eilat is renown for excellent diving and windsurfing. The old holiday cliché of floating in the thick, oily waters of the Dead Sea is an un-missable experience. Near the Dead Sea is the lush, beautiful oasis of Ein Gedi with its freshwater springs, waterfalls and tropical flora. Overlooking the Dead Sea is Masada - the fortress where the last stand of Jewish Rebellion against the Romans took place. In 66 AD after a long siege, when defeat became inevitable, all the 967Jews of Masada took their own lives, rather than face slavery. But if archaeology and history aren’t your thing, the views from this high mountaintop, accessible by cable car, are alone worth the journey.

This is just a tiny fraction of what Israel has to offer, but now we have to consider the risks, Israel is after all a very troubled country. When Ariel Sharon, now Israel’s right-wing Prime Minister, visited the Temple Mount, a Muslim holy site, he sparked off a spiral of violence that would lead to more than 400 (mostly Palestinian) deaths. Peace talks between Israel and Palestine had been failing for some time. Not since Israel finally handed over the last part of West Bank territory a year ago, as agreed in the Wye accord, has progress been made in Middle East peace talks. The election of hard-liner Sharon has aggravated the situation. Anger over high Palestinian casualties has provoked the militant Palestinian group Hamas, which has vowed to greet the new government with a wave of suicide bombings. This was no empty threat. This month has already seen a lone suicide bomber kill four and wound dozens in Netanya.

Israelis hoped Sharon was the man to make their country a safer place, but it is unlikely that his tactics will achieve this. Sharon has tightened his stranglehold on the West Bank and Gaza, which has devastated the Palestinian economy. Israeli army roadblocks have stirred up border violence, but casualties from the conflict are prevented from reaching hospital. A Palestinian teenager was apparently shot in the head during clashes with the army in the West Bank. Later in the same day a stun grenade fired by Israeli troops was thrown into an elementary school in Hebron. Several children were treated for burns.

The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office are currently warning travellers to avoid Gaza and the West Bank altogether. They anticipate that the potential for further violence is high. They also recommend that resident British nationals and dual British/Palestinian nationals should leave these areas if they have no pressing reason to stay. These places have periodically been no-go areas for tourists throughout Israeli history. From the visitor’s point of view this doesn’t need to pose much of a problem, as Bethlehem and Jericho are the only main tourist spots ruled out by such restrictions.

It is random terrorist attacks that strike in Israeli towns and cities that pose a more direct risk to tourists. In the current climate the Foreign Office warns that sporadic outbreaks of violence are possible. While foreign nationals have never been the targets of these incidents, the risk of getting caught up in violent conflict remains. Jerusalem is a key danger area as control of the city it is at the centre of the dispute between the opposing factions.

If all this hasn’t put you off and you still want to go, then getting there is simple. You will be allowed up to a three-month stay provided, if asked, you can prove you have the funds to cover your visit. The main problem for travellers will be the obligatory security stamp on your passport when you enter the country. This stamp makes your passport useless in many Arab countries. There are ways around this, either try to persuade the official to stamp your entry permit instead of your passport. Or enter Israel on El Al or Air Sinai flights from Egypt.

Security in Israeli airports is understandably stringent. You will be interrogated before they allow you or your baggage anywhere near a plane. They will ask questions about your visit and about your travelling companions. They will cross-reference your answers with those of your companions who will be being questioned elsewhere. Although a little stressful, they do this for your own protection. When I left Israel my routine interrogation was interrupted:
“Is this your bag?” the young army recruit asked, pointing at a shiny new holdall on the counter.
“No,” I replied.
“Is this yours sir?” She asked the man standing behind me in the queue. He also said no.
“Okay, let’s go, come with me,” she said calmly. In seconds the entire departure lounge was emptied of hundreds of people. No fuss, no panic, a very smooth operation. “Don’t worry,” she said, once we were standing outside Ben Gurion Airport, “this happens all the time.”

British Foreign and Commonwealth Office:
Provides up-to-date travel advice for Israel and any other destination.

©Jim Johnson

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